Last year's prolific battle, in the divisional round of the playoffs, was a cat and mouse game between Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. As most of you know, Roman and quarterback Colin Kaepernick outsmarted and outran Capers' defense.
Yet, Capers is hoping this year's playoff game between the two teams is different. Based on the regular-season meeting earlier on in the year, there's a good chance Kaepernick will be looking to exploit Green Bay's defense through the air. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is back in the mix, and Anquan Boldin has carried San Francisco's passing game the entire season.
Undoubtedly, this will be a hard-fought battle until the end between two pretty evenly matched teams. With injuries considered, let's break down which team has the edge at each position heading into this week's wild-card matchup.
The San Francisco 49ers possess one of the most dominant and accomplished offensive lines in the league. Left tackle Joe Staley has been selected to the Pro Bowl three times, left guard Mike Iupati has been nominated to the Pro Bowl twice, and right tackle Anthony Davis is one of the highest-graded pass protectors at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
This should come as no surprise based on the fact the 49ers have allowed the 11th-fewest quarterback sacks in the NFL.
Yet, this unit does more than pass protect. It has the athletic ability to motor down the field on screen plays, and it opens up holes for San Francisco’s backfield. During the regular reason, the 49ers averaged 4.4 yards per carry, scored 18 touchdowns and garnered 20 runs of 20 yards or more. No other team amassed more runs of 20 yards or more.
This, in turn, may spell trouble for the Packers defensive line. Green Bay was awful against the run this season. It allowed 2,000 yards on 432 carries and surrendered 16 rushing touchdowns. Additionally, Dom Capers’ defense finished the year with a negative-44.3 run defense grade from the folks at PFF.
The good news is defensive ends Mike Daniels and Datone Jones can rush the passer. Daniels and Jones combined for 12 quarterback sacks, nine quarterback hits and 36 quarterback hurries. Unfortunately for the Packers, it will take more than two players to consistently get pressure versus the 49ers’ all-world offensive line.
In two career starts (playoffs included) versus the Packers, Colin Kaepernick has absolutely owned Capers’ defense. He has thrown for 675 yards, rushed for 203 yards and scored seven touchdowns total.
Yes, injuries to Green Bay’s secondary played a role the past two meetings, yet you can’t use that as an excuse. The Packers’ pass defense has been on a slippery slope since the beginning of the season. On average, it gives up 247.2 yards per game through the air, while allowing 3.8 pass plays of 20 yards or more per game.
Moreover, the Packers yield 1.8 passing touchdowns every time they take the field.
Let’s not forget Kaepernick turned in the best passing game of his career when Green Bay traveled to San Francisco in Week 1. And he did it without wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the lineup. Should the Packers secondary be worried? Absolutely.
Right now, their most capable cornerback is Sam Shields, and that’s not saying much.
He has played well at times, but he isn’t a shutdown corner by any means. He had his worst game of the season when these two teams met Week 1. On 10 targets, he surrendered five catches for 116 yards receiving. It’s safe to say wide receiver Anquan Boldin has his number.
Unless Shields has the game of his life Sunday, Kaepernick is primed for another big day.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Packers front seven has talent. Daniels, linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle Ryan Pickett have all been exceptional against the run this year. Yet, it takes more than three players to shut down the 49ers’ vaunted run game.
San Francisco’s offensive line is too good at controlling the line of scrimmage. There’s a reason the 49ers have the third-most productive run game in the NFL. Frank Gore topped the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season, and Kendall Hunter averaged 4.6 yards a clip in relief duty.
In addition to the gaudy numbers, the 49ers’ running backs have been above average pass-catchers out of the backfield in limited opportunities. On 18 receptions, Gore and Hunter have accumulated 154 yards total and 121 yards after the catch and forced three missed tackles.
With Matthews on the sideline (injury), who is going to cover Gore and Hunter out of the backfield? A.J. Hawk has flashed in coverage at particular points, but he’s not consistent enough to be relied upon. Opposing signal-callers have a quarterback rating of 88.2 when throwing into his coverage area, per PFF.
Matthews’ speed and lateral quickness will surely be missed on Sunday. Even though he’s often pegged as a one-trick pony, he’s easily the most complete linebacker the Packers have. If no one outside of Daniels or Pickett steps up, it’s going to be a long day for Green Bay’s front seven.
Prior to Crabtree’s return, the 49ers’ wide receiving corps was doing nothing more than simply getting by.
Aside from Boldin, San Francisco didn’t have a reliable wideout on its roster. Jon Baldwin had a hard time finding the field, and Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham looked like they hadn’t fully recovered from their torn ACLs. Subsequently, Williams was cut, and Manningham was placed on injured reserve.
However, things appear to be on the up and up. Crabtree has kick-started the Niners’ passing game over the course of the last five games. He has 19 catches, 284 yards receiving and one touchdown. His presence on the field has also given Boldin more one-on-one opportunities down the field.
Since Crabtree’s re-entry, Boldin has posted a 98-yard receiving game, a 93-yard receiving game and a 149-yard receiving game. Opposing defenses can no longer double-team him and roll coverage to his side of the field. This may end up being a problem for the Packers, because their cornerbacks have underperformed all season long.
Things may have not been so shaky for Green Bay’s secondary if Casey Hayward would have had a clean bill of health this year. Yet, you can always say what if when it comes to injuries. The fact of the matter is, the Packers not only have to worry about Boldin this time around; they have to worry about Crabtree as well.
Shields and cornerback Tramon Williams have to have their biggest games of the season.
It’s easy to praise the 49ers defensive line. It has star players at all three positions. Justin Smith is a perennial Pro Bowler, Glenn Dorsey has come into his own under defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, and Ray McDonald is a run-stuffing phenomenon.
Smith, Dorsey and McDonald played a huge role in San Francisco’s success against the run. The Niners didn’t surrender a 100-yard rusher in 2013, and they were one of five teams to not allow a 40-yard run.
Yet, the big-bodied anchors have a hard time getting a regular pass rush on the inside. McDonald and Dorsey both have negative pass-rushing grades from PFF. Smith has had to pick up the slack week in and week out. In 487 pass-rush snaps, he registered 6.5 quarterback sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 39 quarterback hurries.
Green Bay’s offensive line excels in pass protection, which means it has a good chance at dominating in the trenches. Left guard Josh Sitton, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right guard T.J. Lang have played well enough to be considered the best guard-center-guard trio in the NFL.
The offensive tackle position, on the other hand, is concerning. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Don Barclay have struggled mightily. At this point in their young careers, Bakhtiari and Barclay are better pass-blockers than run-blockers. Off the snap, they struggle to get a consistent push.
Nevertheless, the Packers' inefficiencies in the run game won’t hold the offense back. All in all, Green Bay will keep Aaron Rodgers upright. That’s all that matters when he is under center.
San Francisco’s pass defense has really surprised people this year. Fans and media members alike thought the secondary was getting too old for its own good after a couple of poor performances to start the year.
Yet in true Jim Harbaugh fashion, he made a few adjustments on the fly, and things started to fall into place for Ed Donatell’s group. Cornerback Tramaine Brock opened a few eyes after Nnamdi Asomugha went down with a knee injury, and rookie safety Eric Reid made Dashon Goldson an afterthought.
Furthermore, the Niners secondary had some help in pass coverage from inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Bowman and Willis finished with positive grades against the pass, while recording an interception and a touchdown.
The bad news is Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFC, and he already torched Vic Fangio’s defense once this year. In Week 1, he piled up 333 yards through the air, threw three touchdown passes and amassed a 102.6 quarterback rating.
San Francisco’s pass defense can improve all it wants, but Rodgers is so hard to contain at home. At Lambeau Field, No. 12 has tossed 97 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in nine seasons.
As Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would say, “Women lie! Men lie! Numbers don't lie!”
The 49ers front seven is the heart and soul of the team's defense. Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Willis and Bowman have all been selected to the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. That means 71 percent of San Francisco’s front seven is composed of Pro Bowl players.
Based on the Niners’ ability to stop the run and rush the passer, those figures aren’t too surprising. As I mentioned above, the 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Sure, rushing numbers across the league are down, but that’s still tough to do in a run-heavy division like the NFC West.
Like the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, the Packers have turned into a more run-heavy team than they have been in the past. Lacy, a second-round pick out of Alabama, has taken the NFL by storm. In addition to being PFF’s third-best running back, he has forced the fourth-most missed tackles, fumbled one measly time and scored 10 touchdowns.
Will he be the first tailback to eclipse the 100-yard mark against the 49ers? Odds are he won’t be, but that doesn’t mean San Francisco’s front seven will walk all over him. Lacy’s a tough runner who has good vision and above average speed for his size.
Despite the fact he is a rookie, Lacy and the Packers offensive line will give the Niners everything they have.
As well as the 49ers secondary has played since Week 5, Green Bay’s wide receiving corps is back to full strength with Randall Cobb back in the mix. And he could prove to be the biggest difference-maker come Sunday.
Against the Chicago Bears in Week 17, Cobb made a triumphant return. He scored the game-winning touchdown, caught both of his targets, averaged 27.5 yards per catch and did it all in 37 snaps.
With a week of game action under his belt, one should expect to see his snap count double versus the 49ers.
Nonetheless, San Francisco’s secondary can’t pay too much attention to him, because Jordy Nelson and James Jones have the necessary skills to do their fair share of damage as well. Nelson finished his 2013 campaign with 85 catches, 1,314 yards receiving, eight touchdowns and 22 plays of 20 yards or more.
Jones’ numbers didn’t rival Nelson’s, but he is as sure-handed as it gets. He only dropped two passes on 88 targets, which is one of the lowest drop rates in the league, according to PFF.
Moreover, his 6.3 yards after the catch average puts him in the top 10 ahead of receivers like DeSean Jackson, Keenan Allen and Dez Bryant. Being productive isn’t always about having the most receiving yards and catches. Sometimes it’s about making the most of your opportunities. Jones is a prime example of that.
The back end of the 49ers defense will hang tough, but the talent level in the Packers’ wide receiving corps is greater than the talent level in their secondary. And by no means is that a knock on Donte Whitner, Reid or Brock. Green Bay arguably has the best trio of wide receivers in the game.
By going back and looking at all the areas of emphasis, the 49ers have the competitive advantage. They had the edge in four different categories, the Packers had the edge in three different categories, and one was a push.
On paper, it looks like San Francisco should come away with a victory on Sunday. But as we know, there are other variables that will factor into the outcome. The Packers are nearly impossible to beat at home during the playoffs, and the 49ers have made a bad habit of coughing up 10-point leads the last two weeks.
But Green Bay’s defense is too porous to win in the playoffs versus a San Francisco team that is riding a six-game win streak. The 49ers got hot at just the right time in the regular season, and their hot streak will carry them into the divisional round of the playoffs.
Prediction: 49ers win, 28-24.